• Wed, Jun 29 2011

Bullish Life: How To Make Better Decisions

Have you noticed that it’s really hard to buy a rice cooker when hundreds of people on Amazon have very strong opinions about which rice cooker is the best?

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz writes about how the ever-expanding panoply of choices (consumer and otherwise) simply paralyzes people: give shoppers three types of jam to choose from, and they’ll pick one; give them eighty types of jam and they’ll get overwhelmed and decide they didn’t need any jam after all.

If I had gone to a suburban KMart in a neglected strip mall and found a single rice cooker, I would have bought it, and it would almost certainly have cooked rice. Instead, I spent two hours reading all of the rice cooker reviews on Amazon: this one exploded in someone’s kitchen! This one makes enough rice for a family of four, but this one has a steaming basket that accommodates broccolini! Someone always bought a certain brand of rice cooker and then couldn’t get that brand anymore and bought another brand and that rice cooker didn’t last as long! (How old do you have to be to have used 4+ rice cookers to their natural ends?)

In the end, I bought a rice cooker that hadn’t exploded on anyone and that had good reviews, albeit not very many (oh no, the great unknown!) It arrived. It was 300% larger than I had expected and didn’t really fit in the cabinet I had intended to store it in. That was two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

I’ve been thinking a lot about decisionmaking. Specifically, one of the reasons I’m now here writing business and life advice is that I’ve simply made a lot of decisions, some of them truly terrible (see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To).

In order to learn from mistakes, though, you have to be willing to make them, and a lot of them. Youth is an excellent time to be risk tolerant: if you start a business and lose everything, what have you really lost? You’ll be 25 and broke. Get up and do it again. In many ways, the delay and worry caused by putting off a decision are worse than the consequences of a bad decision; sometimes simply being decisive and doing something, anything at all, is preferable to inertia.

Here are some principles for better (and less painful) decisionmaking.

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  • Liz T

    Just a quibble–that jam study has been cast into doubt:

    http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/11/the-paradox-of-choice-is-not-robust.html

    One of my values is definitely making sure everyone is correct as possible in interpreting psychological studies. I’m not saying that’s noble.

    • Jen Dziura

      Fascinating! Especially: “There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are.”

      I personally, of course, have never had trouble selecting jam. However, I do remember my company failing and thinking how terribly paralyzing it was to have a world of options — if you grow up being told you can be “anything you want to be,” that’s a lot of pressure to end up picking something pretty awesome.

      But, fair enough.

      Jen

  • Samseaster

    I completely agree with the jam experiment though I don’t think people will give up, just be annoyed and prone to second guessing. For example, I decided to move to china and teach English and in the last six months have received over four hundred offers. Many were duds or in places I didn’t want to go but I had it narrowed down to forty great choices that paid well and in were cities I liked. It was like being in the toothpaste isle, all were basically the same but I felt paralyzed by choice. However, I made a deadline and finally choose. Hopefully I won’t second guess.